Mindfulness and Racism

Being on Facebook has given me a view into the wide range of beliefs, ideas, and feelings that people are having right now. What I have discovered should probably not have been surprising, but the comments have been everything from transformational to shocking.

I have found one type of post particularly interesting. It goes something like this: “I’m not racist” and  “The people I know aren’t racist” followed, at times, with a confusion about the evidence of systemic racism. This is usually followed by an equal number of people agreeing while others offer resources that would suggest we are all racist to some degree and citing evidence of systemic racism.

Racism exists within us. And, for purposes of this blog, I would prefer not to call people racist, which labels the person. Rather, I would like to point out that our thoughts are racist, and unfortunately sometimes thoughts lead to actions that can kill people. But for people having difficulty with understanding how deep racism is rooted within us, I’m hoping that labeling the thoughts as opposed to the person will create less defensiveness and an openness to what I have to say.

I am a white person and I have noticed that white people can become quite uncomfortable with the idea that they have racist thoughts. Feeling uncomfortable and having regret is understandable and necessary, but moving into feeling shame and/or defensiveness will prevent you from performing the necessary examination of your thoughts. Brene Brown recently interviewed Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, on this topic and if you’d like to know more about shame and racism please listen to her recent Unlocking Us podcast.

The reason I am convinced that everyone has racist thoughts is, if you have a brain that works like everyone else’s, you will be subject to cognitive distortions and unconscious or implicit bias. Research shows that the human brain is predisposed to learn negative stereotypes. And, everyone has been affected by the messages from the culture about race in movies, TV shows, news reports, as well as in almost every aspect of the world around us since the moment they were born. It is scientifically impossible that your brain has not been impacted by it. And, that’s not your fault. That is the brain doing what it does. It takes in information and stores it, without you even knowing it.

For a fun example of how we get influenced without our knowing it, watch “Magic for Humans” Influencing the Influencers. Watch how simple suggestions have an impact. Then take that and expand it to the lifetime of TV and movie images that we have seen where black people are in roles of the drug dealer, maid, servant, criminal, etc. just as a start. These images take form in our mind and create beliefs based on falsehoods.

While your unconscious, implicit bias is not your fault, recognizing the bias that your brain has developed over your lifetime is your responsibility. Unconscious, implicit bias may be hard to recognize because of the fact that it is “unconscious.” Many studies have shown that as early as age 3, children pick up terms of racial prejudice without really understanding their significance. Unless you’ve lived in a cave all of your life, you could not have escaped racial conditioning!

That’s where the skill of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness helps us to hear our thoughts, without judgment, so that we can choose whether to believe them or not. We can choose whether to act on them or not. It is not your fault that your mind says racist things because it’s been conditioned by a racist culture. Again, it is your responsibility to be aware of them so that you’re less likely to fall prey to them.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. A number of years ago, I was standing in line at the post office. The most significant part of the story is when I heard my mind say, “I hope I get the white person behind the counter to help me instead of the black person,” and the underlying belief was that the black person would not be as competent. Wow! I was so embarrassed that I had that thought but there it was. I thought, “thank goodness no one around me can hear my thoughts!” In response, I remember saying to myself, “I really hope I get helped by the black person.” And I did. The black person was perfectly competent and friendly. And, I taught my distorted brain a lesson. It’s hard, but I try not to shame myself about my thoughts.

Even though it feels vulnerable to share this in a post, I believe that the more honest and transparent we become, the easier it will be for all of us to be honest and transparent. So, I get it. It doesn’t feel good to have racist thoughts when I want to think of myself as a “good” person and someone without racial bias. However, shame is counterproductive and transparency is transforming.

As we learn through mindfulness practice, thoughts aren’t facts. Thoughts arise from the conditioning of our minds. The bad news is that we can be conditioned without our permission. The good news is we can condition our minds with different thoughts—thoughts that counteract the ones we wish we didn’t have.

Part of the issue and difficulty people might have with recognizing their racism might be the images that conjures up. You might only think of extreme examples of racism like lynching, beating, and yelling racial slurs at people and then say, “Well, I don’t do that.” But, even fleeting thoughts like I had above are also racist.

For now, I encourage you to be curious and open to the ways that you have been conditioned with racism. Have you ever felt afraid when you saw a black man coming toward you? Have you clutched your bag a little tighter or locked the car door when you saw a black person? Have you ever felt like a black person was less competent than a white person? Are you more comfortable being around or working with people who “look like you”? Have you ever judged a black person because of their economic status? Have you ever judged a black person about their hair, the way that they dress, the way that they talk, what kind of car they drive?

Buddhism suggests we use the four types of skillful effort to address our thoughts. I’ll apply them to this conversation.

1. Recognize when racist thoughts arise. Pay attention, without judgment, to those moments when a thought arises out of no where which judges and assumes. Recognize when defensiveness arises around the issues of racism, white privilege, and systemic oppression.

2. Abandon those thoughts that are not skillful. While this can be harder than it sounds, once you recognize the racist thoughts you can direct yourself to think more accurately about a situation. Let go of your defensiveness in order to learn.

3. Cultivate non-racist thoughts and actions, like lovingkindness, compassion, empathy for black people. Cultivate actions that help black people, like giving money to organizations who are doing the work.

4. Maintain these skillful thoughts and actions over time by continued effort. Talk to others about what you’re learning, reading, or seeing that helps more people understand about the impact of racism and how white people, in particular, have a job to do.

Join me in the human race of people who have imperfect minds. Join me in continually rooting out racism in our minds and cultivating thoughts of lovingkindness for all. Look at yourself and your thoughts without judgment, but, by all means– look and learn and change. Particularly at this moment, our world depends on it.